Kilimanjaro Part 3: Ascent

September 29, 2014

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I can’t tell you how nervous I was about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro going into the experience. In fact, when I was sitting on the 13 hour flight from Toronto to Addis Ababa, I was nearly sweating in my seat wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into. I didn’t feel prepared. I hadn’t trained hard enough. I didn’t bring the right gear. This really wasn’t the time to be feeling wishy-washy about my decision to climb Africa’s tallest mountain.

There was a Kilimanjaro documentary on the little personal movie screen in front of me. In it 6 Americans wobble their way up the mountain, only to reach the top and proclaim miserably that it was the worst and most difficult thing they’d ever done. Maybe Ethiopian Airlines had chosen to show this documentary in order to snag tourists originally headed for Kilimanjaro, after which showing they might change their mind and just stay in Addis. It certainly didn’t help me to sleep any better.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnce we got on the trail, however, I felt up for the challenge. I was surrounded by 4 good friends, the energy was high and we were off on an adventure that would without a doubt offer some incredible rewards.

Day 1 was a short day. We began hiking at an altitude of 6,100ft above sea level and climbed just over 2,000ft. It was steep, but we reached Mandara Hut after about 4 hours of hiking. Day 1 down, 5 to go.

Pole pole means “slowly” in swahili, and it’s the only way to the top. It’s crucial that the body is properly prepared for the final ascent up to 19,340ft. Water is medicine on the mountain. We were to drink between 4 and 5 liters of water per day and eat as much as we could. Ezekiel, our main guide, kept tabs on our daily water and food intake, and performed medical exams on us which included pulse and blood oxygen level monitoring.

Sam and Stanley were our assistant guides. One of them always set the pace, which was pole pole, at times painfully. A crew of 13 porters carried our extra belongings, food and cookware up the mountain. Each day we would set off as the porters were OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAdivvying up the loads. After about half an hour of walking, they would shuffle by us in a single file line with 30 pounds of luggage balanced precariously on their heads. “Jambo” they would say to us under their breath, “Hello.”

Since it was still early when we reached Mandera Hut, we decided to hike a bit further to a lookout point from which we could look down on Kenya which lies just over the border of Tanzania to the North.

That night we slept above the dining hall with about 16 other hikers. This was the most crowded hut, but I slept surprisingly well in my -15 degree sleeping bag.


One of the side affects of the altitude medication diamox is that it makes you pee… a lot. Throughout the night we would make our way down a ladder and out
side to pop a squat either in the pit latrines or in the grass outside. My choice was always the grass when it was dark enough to not be spotted. My recommendation to future climbers is to bring a pair of slip on shoes for camp that you can use for these frequent, sleepy trips to the restroom.

The hike on day two was longer – about 8 hours in total, but was also quite easy and enjoyable. The lush terrain of the high rainforest gave way to Heather and Moorland. Here the scenery is rocky and prickly-looking. Robust grasses and hearty wildflowers quiver in the sweeping wind. Tall lolipop-like cacti-bushes poke out of the landscape like Dr. Seus’s truffula tree.



We were tired after hiking for 8 hours and the site of Horombo Hut was welcomed. At 12,140ft., Horombo sits above the cloud line, making for a stunning sunset that literally stopped me in my tracks as I stepped out the door of our hut that evening. When the sky is clear, you can also see Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance, it’s glaciered peak gleaming and looking a lot more distant than 2 days hiking, especially when our guides insisted on an ever more literal interpretation of pole pole.


Day 3 was a “rest day” or acclimatization day. We took a short hike up the mountain. The path was steep with sharp switchbacks. I began to feel the effects of the altitude on my unaccustomed lungs. Even taking baby steps, my heart was pounding and my breathing deepened with the pressure of diminished oxygen levels. We hiked back down that afternoon to Horombo Hut, and were greeted by a golden sunset that cast an orange glow on the sea of clouds below us. That night we sat outside the dining hall and played “Asshole” – our card game of choice for the entire trip.

At this point we were all still feeling quite good, energized, generally headache free and in good spirits.

DesertWe set out early on Day 4, our surroundings quickly shifting from lowland shrubbery to alpine desert dearth. I felt sluggish and out of breath that morning and needed to walk more slowly than the rest of the group. I lagged behind and focused on my breathing, and on putting one foot in front of the other. I began to notice how in tune with my body I was and had been throughout the last 4 days. It felt important to be aware of any changes in energy levels, breathing, appetite and any other subtle cues the body was sending to walk slower, drink more, take a rest or maintain status quo. No need to over exert or put any additional stress on the body such as pushing it through hunger or failing to put gloves and hat on when it feels chilled. I wanted to save up every bit of energy I had for the final ascent, so I really took care of my body’s every need.

By the afternoon it was cold and getting windy. We were greeted on the path by Toby, a gregarious Englishman who we had met at Horombo and who had skipped the acclimatization day and so was a day ahead of us. He was headed back down the mountain after his summit (or attempted summit) of the early morning, walking sticks in hand. We asked him how it was, if he’d made it to the top.

“Oh no, guys, it was too hard for me,” he said with a hanging head.

We started to conjure up words of reassurance and sympathy when…

“Ha! Fooled ya! It was good, guys, I did it!”

Whew! If Toby could do it, surely so could we! At this point we were getting close to the end. We knew that in just a few hours we would be waking up in the darkness to attempt Kilimanjaro’s 19,340ft. summit.



Kilimanjaro Part 2: Safari

August 24, 2014

July 18,

Our journey started in Moshi – a little town that sits below Mt. Kilimanjaro. At 19,340 ft. above sea level the volcano is an ominous presence in the town. But at this time of year – winter – cloud cover and fog completely conceal its existence. You’d never know it was there – unless you just knew.

As a way to transition into the trip, to get to know Tanzania and adjust to the 7 hour time change, we kicked off the trip with 2 days of safari. We met our safari guide, Jackson, who never stopped smiling and who whispered for the majority of two days we spent with him.

Ngorongoro Crater

                       Ngorongoro Crater


From left to right: Ryan, Matt, Amanda, Chelsea, Megan, Sarah

We started at the Ngorongoro crater, a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s home to most of the species that inhabit East Africa including but not limited to lions, zebras, elephants, hippos, wildebeest, cheetahs, leopards, black rhinoceros, and hyena. The crater was formed millions of years ago when a volcano believed to have been comparable in size to Kilimanjaro erupted and collapsed in on itself, creating an enclosed bowl that hosts just the right environment for all of these species to co-exist. For one full day, we zipped around the park in a safari jeep viewing animals I’d only ever seen in zoos.


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I was surprised by how close we were able to come to the animals. The male lion didn’t skip a beat as we chugged along beside him. A baby even wandered away from its mama to cozy up beside the warm safari jeep. We must either be really unappetizing fare or else we’re so damn easy to get just the thought of reaching up and pawing us out of the vehicle is a complete bore!


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next day we visited Lake Manyara National park where we saw giraffes, more elephants, and spent an hour observing monkey behavior.




Monkeys demand your attention with their humanness. The way they sit on a branch and hold a piece of fruit in their two hands, nibbling and picking at it. They wander in groups: adults and adolescents and little babies. Even if I was clueless as to what was going on socially within the pack, I couldn’t help but to imagine them as a traveling family with dynamics comparable to my own. The babies’ interaction with the other members of the pack is particularly provoking. All older monkeys care for the babies, and the babies accept affection from all. A baby might bound into the arms of a medium, adolescent monkey one minute, and then later find its mother, clinging to her underside or grasping around her neck receiving a smooth motherly stroke. One baby monkey slipped out of its mother’s arms to pester an older “sibling” who resisted and retreated into the forest. When the little one pursued the annoyed pubescent, Mama calmly strode toward her and grabbed her tail, putting a damper on the fun.

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From Lake Manyara we moseyed back to Moshi, packed our bags for the mountain and went to sleep, restlessly; we would begin our Kilimanjaro ascent the next morning.


Kilimanjaro Part 1

August 16, 2014

Mt. Kilimanjaro is wired. At the second camp on the Marangu route: Horombo Hut, sitting at 12,205 ft. above sea level, a girl my age received a text notification through her phone that an airplane had crashed in Taiwan, this following the Malaysia Airlines flight that was shot down over Ukraine less than a week earlier. I was shocked by the news, and even more so by the fact that someone was surfing the net at this altitude and in this place – this outrageously stunning place so far removed from the chaos that festered below us.

Her monologue about the news was distracting to me. I didn’t really want to hear the news or look at my phone up there. Mt. Kilimanjaro put me in my place; in that place.

Now I’m back to my techno-enhanced life and I want to share my Kili experience with you! Since I wasn’t able to blog from Mt. Kilimanjaro (or had the decency to turn off my phone and pretend that option was not available), I’ll share a series of posts about the trip over the next week or two.

First of all, the motive to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro came initially from my involvement with the non-profit organization Vision for the Poor, a 501c3 whose mission is to end avoidable blindness in underserved areas in Latin America and Haiti. The work is quite simple and effective: help build sustainable eye clinics that after 3 years are operated by local eye doctors and staff. Simple in concept… but a lot of work on the ground.

Vision for the Poor grew out of an organization called VOSH (Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity), which sends eye 1105 (301)doctors and volunteers on medical mission trips to areas that lack access to quality eye care. These are incredibly caring and giving people who enjoy the hands on experience of traveling to a third world country and interacting with the people they serve. That being said, Vision for the Poor holds the view that a more sustainable model than using resources to send foreign docs on mission trips is to empower local Picture 137eye doctors to do the work they have been trained and educated to do within their own countries. Another important benefit is that with these permanent eye clinics, patients receive continual care, rather than visiting a temporary clinic once and never seeing a doctor again.

You can learn more about what Vision for the Poor does on their website.

Vision for the Poor has a fundraiser. It’s called Climb for Sight. That’s the one my 4 friends and I participated in! They asked us to raise a bunch of money for the organization, all of which would fund sight-restoring surgeries for kids at the clinics, like these little ones:

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And then they sent us to hike our butts up Mt. Kilimanjaro for 6 days!

For 2 months, the 4 of us used two fundraising methods. First we each wrote letters and made phone calls to our family and friend networks. Then we created a collective crowd-funding campaign to expand our reach on the web. In the end, we raised more than $54,000 (and counting – some cash is still flowing in from our generous contributors) !! This sum will provide more than 250 surgeries for kids at the sustainable eye clinics Vision for the Poor has helped to build in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti, Peru and Tanzania!! We are so excited about the success of our fundraising and positive response from our friends and families, as well as some who don’t even know us personally, that I can’t stop putting exclamation points at the end of my sentences!!! … !!

But quite seriously, the whole fundraising experience was truly a positive one. Not only did I receive generous donations from my supporters, but I also got to speak with a lot of people I hadn’t caught up with in months, or years. People reached out to me in amazing ways, like my yoga instructor at a local yoga studio in Crawfordsville, IN who held a donation class to support my cause.

That being said, if you didn’t get a chance to donate, you can visit the Vision for the Poor website and make a donation there.

That’ll be the end of my rantings on Vision for the Poor and Climb for Sight. For now. Tomorrow I’ll begin posting trip details, photos and stories from the mountain so check back!

Living the Slow Life

June 5, 2014

Country life welcomes slowness… stillness… presence. I’ve enjoyed so many moments this Spring while in slow movement. I began running a lot to train for a half-marathon at the beginning of May which took me on winding back roads among the corn fields. I began to notice things I would never have seen while racing past in my car (why is it that I always race while in my car?). I watched the rows of corn go from staked with dry stalks from last year’s harvest, to threaded with strands of green cotyledons – the very first stage in the cycle so banal to Big Ag. Day by day as I ran past I watched the true leaves emerge and stretch skyward, like little bunny ears all in a row.

After the race I was tired of running, so I’ve started cycling to burn off steam instead. Without a doubt the best time for a bike ride is in the late afternoon, particularly during the golden hour when the sun seems to hit everything perfectly. I never knew how high a young buck can leap until one pranced along beside me on my bike, but speeding past, boasting how he absolutely floated, limber, with only a suggestion of a touch to the ground between bounds. Graceful doesn’t even fit as a description.

I enjoy life so much more at a slow pace. I miss certain things about the city sometimes. There’s always something to do. Lots of social events and interesting people to meet. But I feel so much more conscious and at ease here in the country where it’s quiet. Where I can sit outside each evening and hear nothing but the various bird calls, the peeping frogs as evening sets in, the flapping of the chickens in the coop. I feel as if I blend into my surroundings. I’m part of it all rather than a molecule racing around to the next social engagement or stimulating activity. In the city, down time feels like a void. Out here it feels natural. Everything welcomes you to observe it through all of your senses. In fact, you don’t really have a choice – it’s really that spectacular.

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May 21, 2014

Yes, I know. It’s been a while since I have posted. Like, ONE WHOLE YEAR.

So in observance of the one year mark for my returning home here is a thought.

I lit a stick of Palo Santo – a fragrant wood used ceremonially in the Andes – and closed my eyes today. I had no intention of time-traveling, but It took me to the house I lived in just before I left Peru one year ago. I actually got chills as the earthy, slightly acrid smoke stirred up images and, more importantly, emotions I’ve let nestle into a corner of my consciousness (or unconsciousness). I visit memories of Peru and Ecuador quite regularly, recalling specific moments or events. But I don’t often dive deep enough to re-feel the emotion locked up in the memories.

I think that to put oneself back into a time and place emotionally is to remember deeply. To truly revisit and look back upon a moment. Reconnect with oneself in that time and place and, being removed in time and place, to assess and learn. For me it was the smell of the smoke that carried me to that place. What a gift.


Traditional Peruvian culture is infused with customs of gratitude, sharing and venerating the natural world. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to participate in a traditional ceremony a couple of weeks ago called a dispacho. Dispacho is a Spanish term in which you can recognize the latin root that is the same in our English word “dispatch.”

A dispatch.

A sending off.

An offering.

My intention was not only to observe and take part in a customary ceremony in the Quechua culture (the culture that existed before the Spanish invasion and still remains largely in tact today), but to also cap my trip with a big thank you to this beautiful valley for hosting me for the past 8 months. While things didn’t turn out the way I had hoped in terms of my own project, I’ve gained a lot here. There’s much that I’ve gathered and will carry with me. I’ve picked up some skills, enjoyed wonderful hikes in the Andes, and formed meaningful friendships that I know will only grow stronger.

That was my intention. The intention of the ceremony leader seemed to be primarily to honor the apus or mountain spirits or gods which are considered among natives to be the caretakers of all living beings. Either way, it was all about gratitude.

The leader of the ceremony is called pakko. Pakko in Quechua means “dog.” It seemed strange to all of us at first that a ceremonial leader, and person considered in the community to be of sacred standing to be referred to as a “dog.” It just didn’t seem polite from our own cultural standards. But in fact, the dog in Quechua culture is known as a medium between the sacred and profane worlds. They are animal connectors between the spiritual and worldly realms. And that is exactly what a pakko does.

The ceremony began at night and took place in the home of a Swiss-Peruvian couple who live in Calca. Valerio grew up in a small, high-altitude community in the Andes mountains. His father was the pakko who led our ceremony. As we entered the room we were led to sit at the dining room table. While we waited for the pakko to return home with the purchased materials for the ceremony, Valerio’s little daughter, who is Swiss-Peruvian and speaks Spanish, German and Quechua at age 6 or 7, looked concerned. She spoke to her mother, Emerita, in German, of which I understood not a word. Emerita turned to me with a grin and said that her daughter was unsure of how to handle the situation that I was sitting in her grandfather’s seat. Unknowingly, I had taken the seat that faces the rising sun, which is the direction the pakko, always chooses. Of course, how could I be so silly?

Having placed myself with my back to the rising sun, the pakko entered with the materials for the ceremony. Ceremonial items include articles that represent organic or earthen materials: coca, corn, flowers; animal materials: llama fat, or llama fetus; and synthetic materials representing our material life on Earth: a paper (U.S.) dollar (prosperity), little jewels, candy, beer and wine. All of these items are placed strategically and in order on a large piece of paper that is eventually all wrapped up and burned for the apus.


The longest part of the ceremony by far was the coca offering. The leaves were spread all over the table for us to sift through and choose sets of three coca leaves, k’intu in Quechua. All three leaves in a k’intu must be of the best quality – not ripped or folded, and should be held right-side-up in the fingers with the stems facing downward.


The ancient molds with the contemporary in the Quechua tradition of coca leaves which are of central importance. Due to the leaves’ energetic potency when they are chewed or drunken in tea, as well as their medicinal properties in curing altitude sickness and other common ailments, they are vital to traditional life here in the Andes. They are also known to be a plant medium between humans and the spiritual world.

As we created our k’intus, we passed them to the pakko who would cautiously hold them to his lips and whisper the names of the important apus. With his utterances, he would shift his eyes and body in the direction of the mystical mountain deities, honoring their existence and giving gratitude for watching over and protecting us. He did this for nearly an hour.


Next, the pakko commenced to make little effigies out of the corn, crowning the dried cobs with llama fat into which he stuck little coca leaves and gold and silver jewels. It was a surprising and strange moment in the ceremony for me, but once I realized what it meant, I began to understand. In this ritual the corn dolls were given symbolic life, representing the male and the female energies and embodying the blending of the plant, animal and human life forces.


After creating our dispacho and sharing port wine and beer with the Pachamama and apus, the pakko folded up our offering and we took it outside to burn over cow dung patties under the starry sky. Once we had it going, we left the fire since the offering is dispelled in the smoke, which is for the apus only, and not for us.


Emerita explained to me that they had been approached by tourists in the past who wanted to participate only in a “sample” dispacho. Her father in law declined this proposition, admitting it seemed odd that one would want to only “observe” and not to take part. To him it didn’t make any sense. I suppose it would be like attending a religious service claiming that I was only “observing,” as if my presence in the room had no spiritual significance at all to me, or to a greater power. I’m there, but excluding myself by referring to my presence as only an act of observance.

It was exciting and humbling to take part in the ceremony, and a beautiful way to end this visit to South America. The Andes are a site to behold, and their many small communities that retain their traditional cultures which venerate our natural world should be teachers to us who have become removed, and which at time alienate ourselves from the Earth. Their lessons are simple and true. It’s not difficult to say thank you, but it’s something we often forget.

Thank you to all who have supported me on this endeavor and in past endeavors. You are my rocks and my apus. You give me strength and courage. You’ve accompanied me along the path. You’ve provided stepping stones over streams that were at times too wide. You’ve understood, you’ve questioned and you’ve loved.

Much Gratitude y Muchas Gracias




April 29, 2013

During the Inca Empire, there were shelters posted along the winding mountain roads where soldiers would stop to rest, eat, and prepare to set out for the next battle. The name given to the shelters was “Tambo,” the Spanish translation of the Quechua term tampu. Tambos were built at a distance of exactly one day’s travel. They were functional, sensible, and “un-home-like” … homes. The Incas knew they would rest there at night, be fed and sheltered, and that the next night would reveal a new one, warm and supportive… and unfamiliar. Tambos possessed the characteristics of a home, but the place itself was never the same.

This concept of Tambo has something in common with the experience I’ve had on this trip. I moved to Calca, Peru seven and a half months ago, and in that time I’ve changed homes a total of 4 times. The longest stint that I called a place home was 3 months, the shortest 3 weeks. You can guess which “home” I ran away from kicking and screaming. Maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but in my mind at the time it probably was.

While this was my third time visiting Peru in the last 3 years, this time I thought I would come to call this beautiful place home. There is something here that has called me back over and over again. The mountains are majestic, the energy charged and intense. Now, as the gods laugh, yet again, at my erroneous theory that I had some kind of cohesive and long-term plan, what I’ve found is that this trip has been all about change.

“All great changes are preceded by chaos.” -Deepak Chopra

Change can throw us off if we let it. And maybe for a time we do. Until we realize that perhaps we have some level of agency in where the next step along the road will take us. For who is the one that ultimately takes the step? Regardless of who says what and what we can glean as true and good for ourselves, we are the agents behind our reality. So we might as well get on with it, face the strain, and use that strain to launch ourselves into something new and great.

I’m speaking to the permanent nature of impermanence that affects the human condition, but in particular, I’m speaking to my own current situation. For a solid two 2 weeks I mourned the loss of a project that I had thought was the purpose behind my trip to Peru. It seemed normal. It was my life not only for the months that I lived here, but it was an idea that was cooking in my mind for almost a year before I made the move. But now I’m realizing that it’s not a question of whether it’s a good or bad thing that it ended. It happened, and now it’s provoking a change, which was bound to happen at some point, in some form.

The end of my project was not the only evidence of change that I’ve experience on this trip. I’ve changed in a big way. I’ve asked myself in the last two weeks: “Why do I keep coming here?” “Why do I repeatedly throw myself into positions where I am far from home, where I know there will be great challenges, and the outcome quite uncertain?” Challenge and struggle can be intensified when one is far from home, far from the support and love of family and friends. The answer to my need to rationalize my recurrent choice to flee home in search of projects and adventure  came quickly. I come here to learn and to grow. That’s really it. I’m not sure it matters what it was exactly that I did during my time in South America, although I’ve gained plenty of experience, and picked up a few skills that I value. But the simple act of going there and doing it, yielding to uncertainty and sometimes pain, has provoked change and growth that I intentionally sought out. And I wouldn’t change that.

Dylan said it was the times, but now I know it’s everything, all the time. And taking the advice of a wise man named Kevin Cronin it’s time for me to roll with the changes. And roll on to my next Tambo, my next post from which to set out.